Law & the Courts

Janet Reno’s Last Victim

(File photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Frank Fuster is a criminal. But that is not why he is in prison.

In 1969, he killed a man in a road-rage brawl in New York, and served four years in prison for it. He may or may not have fondled a nine-year-old girl years later as she sat in his lap playing with the controls of the car he was driving. He denied and continues to deny any wrongdoing in that case. Before his trial, he passed a polygraph examination, and the court-assigned forensic psychologist working on his case was skeptical of the claims against him. He turned down a plea deal and was convicted at trial, at which time he was sentenced to two years’ probation.

He is in prison today for a crime that he almost certainly did not commit — one that in all probability never happened at all: He is the last man incarcerated on convictions stemming from the mass hysteria involving what came to be known as SRA — Satanic ritual abuse — purportedly happening at day-care centers (and in subterranean lairs, and in outer space — more on that below) in the 1980s and 1990s. Fuster and his wife (immigrants from Cuba and Honduras, respectively) were the central figures in the “Country Walk” Satanic-ritual-abuse cases, accused of staging outlandish orgies of pedophilic rape involving instruments ranging from crucifixes to drills to snakes, with which children allegedly were sodomized.

(Rael Jean Isaac tells the story at length in the September 10 issue of National Review.)

Those familiar with the history of these cases will not be surprised to learn that while such theatrical and invasive abuse would have left a significant trail of physical evidence, the absence of such evidence did not prevent Fuster’s conviction. Instead, Fuster was convicted on evidence of a different sort: His then-wife, 17 years old at the time of her arrest, was held in solitary confinement for months on end and abused on the orders of Janet Reno, the Florida prosecutor who went on to become Bill Clinton’s attorney general. An investigator who visited her during her incarceration stated in a sworn deposition that she was covered in sores, that she reported being kept naked and put on humiliating display, that she was denied basic hygiene facilities and hosed down with cold water, and more. This went on for eleven months, during which she continued to assert her innocence and declined to agree to the confession and plea deal offered to her. A psychological consultancy bearing the dystopian name Behavior Changers, Inc., was brought in, and she put her name to a lurid confession — the contents of which she denied even as it was entered into the court record. “I am pleading guilty not because I’m guilty but because it’s best for my own interests,” she said. “I am innocent. I have never done any harm to any children. I have never seen any harm done. I am pleading guilty to get all of this over.”

The other element weighing heavily against Fuster was — as in many of these cases — “recovered” memories.

There is practically no scientific evidence that the suppression and recovery of traumatic memories is an actual and authentic phenomenon. Its mere existence is the subject of intense debate, which in itself ought to keep alleged evidence based on that theory out of criminal trials until the fact and folklore can be separated.

Many psychiatrists and experts on memory categorically deny the existence of such suppressed and recovered memories. No scientific trial has ever convincingly established any basis for the phenomenon; what has been established, repeatedly, is that it is fairly easy for interrogators to plant false memories in people. (In the famous “lost in the mall” experiments, subjects presented with a fictitious account of their having been lost at a mall as children developed false memories, often very detailed ones, of having experienced that; researchers were able to implant false memories in about 25 percent of subjects, and a substantial number of those (about a fifth) were unable to identify the false memory when presented with a list including real-life events and one fiction.)

That is not the sort of evidence that should be used to put a man in prison.

In this case, that is life in prison: Fuster is scheduled to have his case reviewed . . . in 120 years.

The rash of similar cases toward the end of the last century constituted a moral panic not unlike the Salem witch hunts. Children, after a good deal of bullying and interrogation, produced the wildest stories of sexual abuse: They told of being buried alive, of being transported to Mexican prisons, of being taken into orbit on spacecraft where they were sexually abused. They told tales of murder and cannibalism. Despite the obvious and undeniable absurdity of these stories, they were used as the basis for a series of sex-abuse cases marked by egregious prosecutorial misconduct and investigatory abuse. In Fuster’s case, Reno’s team claimed that his young son was infected with gonorrhea in his throat, and that this was evidence of his sexual abuse. The test they used was preposterously unreliable (a third of the positive results were in error), and, worse yet, prosecutors destroyed the evidence before it could be retested — which does not suggest that they were acting in good faith. Moreover, Frank Fuster himself tested negative for gonorrhea.

Frank Fuster does not seem like a very good man. He may even be a child molester. But the case against him was flawed to the point of fraudulence. His continued imprisonment is a gross injustice, a blot on the reputation of the state of Florida — a blot that Governor Rick Scott should remove before he leaves Tallahassee for the U.S. Senate.



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